FOXBORO -- Every time the Patriots punt, Matthew Slater says what he does is like a "street fight." Often facing double teams as one of New England's two gunners -- Marquice Cole normally fills the other gunner spot -- Slater knows he has to do all he can to avoid their blocks and be the first to the opposing returner.
Though television cameras often don't show Slater's route to the ball, it's usually a jagged one rife with contact. All the way down the field, while running at full speed, he has to absorb hits -- sometimes give them out -- and continue to press forward toward his target. It's a street fight and a race, all in one.
Slater's wrist injury was initially somewhat difficult to deal with upon return. Not because it hurt, but because he didn't trust it immediately.
The two-time Pro Bowler reportedly broke his left wrist against the Jets in Week 2 and did not return until Week 7 in New England's second game with Rex Ryan's bunch. When he got back, Slater was re-entering those regular street fights with an arm in which he needed to regain trust.
"I think it was an adjustment at first when I came back," Slater said. "Just getting my confidence as far as being confident it was going to hold up and I wasn't going to have any issues with it."
Upon Slater's return, he wore what looked like a removable cast -- "I don't know if coach would want me to talk about that," he said when asked what was protecting his wrist nowadays -- and saw plenty of action right away.
In New England's overtime loss to New York, Ryan Allen punted seven times. On all but one punt, Slater opted to use his right arm as the contact point between him and his defenders. While many factors -- the team's position on the field and the direction of the punt -- can determine which way Slater chooses to attack a blocker, he usually opted for a route to the returner in which his left arm was not a primary point of contact.
Since then, Slater has taken plenty of big shots to his left arm and come away no worse for the wear. Against the Texans last week, during Allen's first-quarter punt, Slater took what looked like a tug on his left arm and then too big shots on his left side from Houston blockers. One such hit looked to be from behind and sent Slater tumbling into Keshawn Martin, stopping the return.
On the third-to-last play of the game, Allen pinned the Texans on their five yard line with 7 seconds remaining. Slater was in protection on the line to keep Houston's all-out block attempt at bay. He gave Houston's Josh Victorian a good stick off the snap and continued down field unaffected.
"Really all in all, I've still been able to use my hand," Slater said. "You have to make adjustments as a player, that's part of the game. I've made some minor adjustments, but I don't think it's been too much of an obstacle for me."
Against the Browns this week, Slater and the Patriots may see two different returners. Last week against the Jaguars, Cleveland used rookie Jordan Poyer as their returner unless the punt was headed for deep inside their own territory. In those situations, the Browns trotted Davone Bess out there as the safer option.
Earlier in the season, the Browns featured one of the best return units in the league with Travis Benjamin returning kicks. He averaged 11.7 yards per return and scored on a 79-yarder earlier this season but tore his ACL in October and is now on injured reserve.
With Slater back and confident in his wrist, the Patriots punt unit hopes to keep whoever is returning kicks on Sunday from hitting the big one.
"We've had injuries this year and had to move around and guys have stepped up big," Slater said. "Hopefully we can continue to improve down the stretch because we're gonna need it, there's no question about that."